My experience of studying acting while a seminary student in Chicago allowed me to explore the relationship between ministry and theatre in some very practical ways. I learned how to read a text, both exploring the intentions of the author and the characters in a narrative, as well as how to present the text in a way that engaged both the ear and the imagination of an audience. But my reflections on the relationship between theatre and theology surfaced later in my doctoral studies in liturgy—and they continue to this day. Now I am learning from my students. I just completed a study of theology and theatre with two students, a doctoral student, Karyn Grasse and a master’s student, Christopher Manus. Through our work together I have become more convinced of the theological content of the processes and events that comprise theatre and their impact on us as people, as well as people of faith.
I am becoming increasingly aware that a Christian understanding of a human person made in the image of the triune God necessitates our understanding ourselves as creatures in relationship—relationship with one another and with God. The narratives of creation in Genesis, as pointed out by theologian Mary Aquin O’Neill, identify humanity as being created with an inherent need for relationship with another like ourselves. So our relationship with one another reflects God’s triune nature, having a “shared but differentiated nature,” as do the persons of the Godhead. Relationships—person to person, face to face—are not options. They are essential to who we are as human beings.
Yet in an increasingly virtual world we interact less directly, less ‘incarnately;’ some might even say less humanely. One such person is philosopher Paul Woodruff. In his book, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, Woodruff argues that one of the primary ways we are socialized into being human is through watching others, and being observed and corrected by others. Woodruff contends that in a world in which we are having less direct interaction with other human beings, theatre provides a context for the watching of human interactions and its evaluation in community. It affords us the opportunity to learn empathy and values and, in the end, become more ethical people. And the reason for its effectiveness in this area is that we are interacting with other human beings in physical—not virtual—proximity with one another. Theatre, from the perspective of the anthropological understandings of the Christian faith, can humanize us because of who we are at our core: relational creatures who learn by observation, imitation and evaluation.
My co-author and friend, Dale Savidge, has just posted a reflection on his recent experience of entering the world of applied theatre. In particular, Dale has begun working with individuals on the autism spectrum and enhancing their capacity for social interaction through theatre. Dale ponders about what this phenomenon says theologically about us as humans and the nature of God. My reflection on Dale’s blog post moves in a slightly different direction theologically, however.
Dale is a person of deep faith. It shapes the way he interacts with others in obvious ways. But I wonder how much his years of work in theatre have formed him as well? I wonder if his numerous theatrical productions, the countless suggestions and corrections to his students, have not fostered in him a sensitivity to others and a compassion that he would not have had otherwise? Is it possible that his life in theatre has tilled the soil of his spirit in ways that have allowed the seeds of God’s Spirit to have taken a deeper root than they otherwise might have? Is it possible that living in the world of theatre may have made Dale a deeper person of faith, more sensitive to the needs of others around him?
I am not intending to privilege theatre above all other forms of human interactions. Certainly social workers coaches, teachers, counselors, pastors all are on the front lines of direct human interaction. But in a world where human interactions are often filtered through the lens of electronic media, does the world of theatre and its developed disciplines of “watching and being watched” have heightened importance to people today? Maybe particularly people of faith? Even especially the training of our ministers, pastors and clergy? These are questions that I am currently pursuing. Your insights are most welcome.
Todd E. Johnson (Ph.D. University of Notre Dame) is the Brehm Chair of Worship, Theology, and the Arts at Fuller Theological Seminary, where he is the lead professor in the new PhD concentration in Christian Worship. Todd has recently co-authored a book on theology and theatre, Performing the Sacred: Theology and Theatre in Dialogue (Baker 2009). An ordained minister, Todd is also an avid hockey fan, endurance athlete, and erstwhile music critic.